Friday, June 24, 2005

Banff, Alberta

Banff is a touristy resort set in a beautiful valley. A festive atmosphere permeates the town.

Well, whaddya know! I get to the town of Banff and the Fairmont has claimed its prime site as well. I had to take this photo in a hurry, for fear of being chased out by security guards.

9:00 p.m.

The low temperature last night seemed to exceed the rating of my sleeping bag. I consulted my "weather station" during the night. It was 38° inside the tent. I kept moving, to generate heat, and pulled the Aerostich suit over the bag, then waited for sunrise. But the sun wasn't coming. Crawled out at 10:30 again. The sky overcast and my little weather station showed a cloud with diagonal lines under it. "Crap."

A weird dream haunted me. It was time to die, and the act would be carried out by a Harvey Keitel-like character who had his gun out, ready to deliver my fate. Only I wasn't quite ready to go. I could not stop fate though. After I was "dead", just as others have said, my life passed before my eyes in images. "Wait! I wasn't hatched from a chicken's egg!!!" Things were not so bad. The troubling part was being unable to communicate with those left behind.

Checking out of Wabasso Campground, I chatted with the attendant, who was also at the gate house last evening. She was eager to converse, with anyone. I commented how quiet the campground is. She said yesterday was their first day being open. Many kids are still in school. With the long Canadian weekend the first of July, she said, things will get very busy.

Continued south on the Icefields Parkway this morning. Many stops, as the landscape was just too astounding. Despite the clouds partially obscuring many of the higher peaks, I could tell this landscape surpasses anything I've seen in the United States, save perhaps the Grand Canyon. But Jasper and Banff National Parks, for better or worse, are much more accessible than the Grand Canyon.

Then I reached the Icefields Centre at the Athabasca Glacier. Here was something the U.S. had no shortage of: tourist meccas. Quite unlike the quietly personal natural experience I expected to encounter at the glacier, here was a full-on Disney-esque operation. Parking lots full of cars, SUVs, motorhomes and tour buses; running, pushing tour groups (MANY Japanese tour groups); confusion and general mayhem; cameras and digital recorders everywhere.

Athabasca Glacier. In the lower center is a trail leading up to the glacier . In the center left are "Brewster Snocoaches" driving out on the glacier (about 6 more of them are in the center of the photo.)

"Brewster" appears to have the concessions locked up here, and runs tours out to the glacier in their huge knobby-tired "SnoCoaches". At any given time, I could see about eight of them out on the glacier. For those who don't want to spring for the $32 ride, there's a short hiking trail that takes you to the glacier's edge. I joined many others in making this little trek. The air was frigid, with a remarkably powerful wind coming off the glacier.

I kept my riding suit on, and waddled up the path, a surprisingly tiring walk, though the elevation was only about 5,000 feet. ("And you want to go play in the Andes, at three times this elevation?") Numerous signs along the path warn of the danger in straying, recounting tragedies in which visitors fell into crevasses. So by the time I actually reached the ice, I was fearful that the ground would give way beneath me and I would be swallowed. Took my glacier photo like everyone else, then did the "slip and slide" back down the path.

Approaching the glacier, numerous signs warn of the danger in straying from the cordoned path.

Whiteout! Overexposed on the Athabasca Glacier.

Such exertion warranted the reward of a meal, so I went across the highway and into the Icefields Centre. What a zoo! (Humans being the strangest creatures on the planet.) Partook of an outrageously overpriced sandwich, then moved on.

Just more awesome landscape...Jasper into Banff.

I believe this was Waterfowl Lake. Typical glacier meltwater, milky turquoise in color.

Head in the clouds

Came upon traffic congestion and glanced off to see a black bear on a slope across the highway. We are so afraid of missing something, that anytime someone pulls over, others slow and look all about to see what that person found. It's actually pretty humorous (and I'm no different from the rest.) Big tour buses rolled to a stop, people got out of cars and clustered together, cameras snapping away.

This fellow caused a traffic jam. A more interesting photo would have been of the silly humans.

Approaching the junction of highways 1 and 93, I realized that this was the farthest north I had reached on my little odyssey 35 years ago. I made it as far as Banff National Park. Jasper then seemed just too far north and out of reach.

At the time, I had a 1970 Honda CB450 and riding gear was much different. No electric vest and heated grips. I recall being cold and miserable, in search of warmth (which came in the form of a Calgary motel room, the first time I
broke down and paid for a motel while touring on motorcycle.)

Lake Louise, a popular destination in Banff National Park.

Followed signs to Lake Louise, the most famous attraction in Banff National Park. I quickly realized I had never seen it in my earlier visit.

In the large public parking lot, I met a gentleman from Colombia, who came over to look at the motorcycle. I told him I would be visiting his country. After a while, I asked “is it safe?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but it’s very dangerous. There are guerrillas in the countryside. And you can’t tell the guerrillas from the army; they wear the same uniform. Actually, the way you tell is the guerrillas have long hair. They don’t cut their hair. For us, it’s like living in a cage. It’s a beautiful country, but you stay in the city...but you’ll be fine."

He did recommend visiting the Caribbean coast. “It’s safe there.”

Lake Louise is a small glacial lake nestled in a beautiful alpine valley, a setting reminiscent of Switzerland. The Fairmont has built an imposing, grandiose, and in my opinion, totally outrageous hotel at the lake's edge, shunting non-guests along paths that skirt their property. "Enter here only the privileged."

This grandiose structure is, in my opinion, totally out of place on Lake Louise's shore. It's an obscene misappropriation of a national treasure. I did however stop in to have one of my favorite coffee drinks: coffee with Gran Marnier and Bailey's, with a dollop of whipped cream. What a hypocrite.

The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel occupies the prime Lake Louise real estate, making this another "exclusive" holding.

For $34 (Canadian) an hour, you can paddle on Lake Louise.

This aura did not deter me from wandering the lobby, shops and lounges. (I stopped in one lounge and listened awe-struck to a Spanish guitarist, playing a work from, I think, Albeniz.)

And, I settled into the "Walliser Stube" bar to enjoy a favorite hot drink: coffee with Gran Marnier, Bailey's and a dollop of whipped cream. (I can play both sides of this game!) It was quiet. I raised a silent toast to that adventurer of 35 years ago. A trace of him still lives on!

Enjoyed talking with the staff, who had some time on their hands. Learned that the Fairmont provided on-site accommodations for up to 700 staff! My server said she loves the job. Well, not the job, but the time off in this wonderland.

These viaducts allow the animals to cross the highway safely. I only noticed two of these in the 40 or so miles of fenced corridor. That certainly is taking the long way around!

First they cleared wide swaths of forest on either side of the highway to reduce wildlife-vehicle encounters. Then, a barrier fence has been erected along the highway through Banff National Park. Now we have in effect built a "Berlin Wall" through the animals' territory.

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